Busy Is What I Am, Not Who I Am

How I reclaimed my time and identity despite the culture of busyness.
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How I reclaimed my time and identity despite the culture of busyness.

In the last month, I’ve been doing yoga for ten minutes every morning. I know ten minutes doesn’t sound like much, but as busy as I am, it’s all I can manage most days. I’m attempting just those ten minutes as an exercise in habit, as well as being present. It’s ten minutes of practicing breathing in a day in which I often feel I’m several breaths behind. 

Ten minutes is all I can give, so I give it. I put the coffee pot on, wander over and lay out my mat. I do a few sun salutations, and mountain poses, and warriors, and then I smell my coffee, and I scurry off to a ten-hour day at work.

I’ve been running a small business since January. I manage a team of 15, and sit in meetings for most of my day. The rest is spent on phone calls, fielding emails, and reading reports. There’s never enough time for everything on my list. Lunch hours are for running errands. And I feel guilty if any of my days and evenings off are not spent writing.

As Americans, we attach a great deal of our identity and self-worth to our jobs, to how we spend our time. The more demanding the job, the more the prestige. Efficiency, productivity, multi-tasking: these are the gods to which we offer up Audible fees and Kindle storage space. 

A study jointly conducted by both American and German institutions recently revealed, yet again, that Americans are putting in more hours at work than our European counterparts. As we continue to struggle with the seemingly abstract construct of work-life balance, comparing our workload to that of other countries is a useful method for measuring what is reasonable and what is not. 

As Science of Us reported, the study didn't necessarily account for unemployment rates or other such notable factors, but it astounded me to find that compared to the countries that most resemble the United States, we work most. We work six more hours than the average German, and four more hours than the average UK worker, per week. 

I wonder if it’s capitalism’s fault. Have the theories of free trade and production value trickled down to our subconscious, convincing us that we are only as valuable as what we produce each day? It would tempting to think so, except that other capitalist countries don't seem to have the "busy condition" as bad as Americans. I know that at the bottom of my busyness, it isn’t the economy that keeps me filling up my schedule. No, rather I value my busyness as part of my identity. 

I’ve long known that I struggle to extract who I am from what I do. To sum up Aristotle, who we are stems from our habits, and I’ve found that to be mostly true. I’m a hard worker, a writer, a responsible woman. But hanging my identity on my job, on how many words I write a day, on whether or not I get to the dry cleaners, is too clinical, too impersonal. It is not the sum of who I am, and who I am is a woman tired of asking myself the same questions: Do I work out enough? Do I read enough? Do I socialize enough? Am I enough? 

Am I enough?

As the leader of a large team, my time management has never been stronger, but I get a strange kick of anxiety when I decide to read a book or go the movies, because a little voice in the back of my head is now always whispering “What better way could you use this time?” 

But this voice, I fear, could strip all the enjoyment out of what I do. I’ve noticed a new instinct to be impatient with slow-movers around me—a sudden fury in my veins when unexpected traffic hits, or a long line at Target holds me up. Even my days off come with pressure to spend them wisely, and sometimes, that anxiety cripples me. I put more enriching activities on the back burner, opting for the instantaneous feeling of doing numerous small tasks now. The longer, more valuable goals—the ones that take time to show fruit—never get accomplished. 

When I read the study’s finding that Europeans work less hours than we do, I rolled my eyes. Sometimes it feels like for every characteristic troubling modern Americans, someone has gone and found a European country excelling at that very thing. This makes it clear that as a society, we envy Europeans. We envy Europeans for their productivity and their leisure time. They get a lot done, but their respective cultures do not demand that they constantly work to get ahead. They have lengthy, financially supplemented parental leave. They spend their weekends outside, engaging with nature. Their children start school at six or seven years old. Their happiness index is higher than ours. 

It’s French women who supposedly have womanhood perfected, if we’re to believe Pinterest. A 10-item capsule wardrobe will keep my look clean and stylish, like theirs, and save me the time I spend dithering over my outfits in the morning. Sweden’s revolutionary six-hour workday experiments or Norway’s SlowTV tempt the American psyche with ideas of slower-paced lives. The Italians make homemade pasta look so healthy, simple and beautiful—and I’ve never heard them talking about too many carbs. We’ve all heard that phrase: Italians reportedly work to live; they don’t live to work.

Yet they certainly work hard. My sister-in-law is from Milan. She’s one of the hardest working women I know, studying harder than most Americans would on the weekends during graduate school, prepping her work week for hours on Sunday afternoons now that she works full-time. But when we sit down to dinner, as with our other Italian friends, the dinner stretches out over hours; we sit at the table idly speaking of this or that, nibbling on bread and drinking wine. These hours are life-giving in a way that a quick lean cuisine wolfed down will putting extra hours in on a laptop simply cannot be.

Scrutinizing the ways we differ from Europeans isn't likely to help us. I’ve long suspected that despite our idolization of European leisure time, the French, Italians, Swedes, and so on don’t necessarily have more free time than we do. I suspect many of them are simply more intentional about spending those free hours giving back to themselves and in community with each other, wiling away moments in ways that feed the body, mind, and spirit. I refuse to worry about how to be more like a French woman. I like being an American one just fine. But there’s still something to learn from other cultures.

It will be a long time before Americans embrace a six-hour workday, but I’ll go ahead and embrace weekends spent outdoors. I cannot count on more time to solve my busy woes, so I must find freedom in those small windows that I have. What kind of relaxation will give me the most back? Sometimes I do need a night vegging out in front of the television. But I’ve found my heart and mind are more refreshed from a day spent hiking or paddle-boarding, from visiting a museum, or leisurely lunching with friends.

I don’t need to strain to be more like the Europeans, and similarly, I don’t need to strain to always be more. I can pursue happiness by chasing the career I love and taking advantage of the free time I do have, rather than dwelling on what I don't. My perception of leisure time is as vital as leisure time itself.

That critical voice inside of me, always demanding more? I have no one to blame for keeping it alive but myself. I spent years building the thought as a habit. Now, with every little adjustment I make, I'm finding it's time to craft a new one.

Photo Credit: Vicki Grafton Photography